Health

Doctors Reverse Girl's Brain Damage Using a Hyperbaric Chamber

Eden Carlson nearly drowned and her parents were told she'd never talk, walk, or react to her environment.
July 21, 2017, 11:29pm

A two-year-old girl severely brain damaged after nearly drowning has shown remarkable signs of recovery thanks to an experimental oxygen treatment.

In February 2016, Eden Carlson climbed through a baby gate, past a heavy door, and into the family pool, reports WDSU News. Her mom, who'd thought Carlson was playing with her older siblings, was in the shower.

The toddler was in the water for at least 10 minutes before being rescued; her mother immediately started CPR, but Carlson's heart didn't beat on its own for nearly two hours. Doctors said she wouldn't survive the night.

She did survive, but magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) showed serious brain damage. When she was discharged from the hospital almost 50 days later, she couldn't speak, walk, or react to her environment, and her parents were told she'd never be able to do so. The damage was irreversible, the doctors said.

Within a week, she started therapy with Paul Harch, director of Hyperbaric Medicine at LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine. He began by letting her breathe 100 percent oxygen at sea-level pressure for 45 minutes, twice a day. That was a treatment meant to stabilize her brain's deterioration because Carlson wasn't near a facility that could provide hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT), where a patient is placed in a pressure-controlled, full-body chamber filled with pure oxygen. By giving Carlson pure oxygen, Harch hoped to prevent further tissue damage until he could get her into an HBOT chamber.

Upon traveling to New Orleans, Carlson was placed in the hyperbaric chamber for 45 minutes a day, five days a week for 8 weeks; a total of 40 sessions. Inside such a chamber, the patient's body is flooded with oxygen, which promotes the production of growth and repair hormones, leading to new tissue growth and healing. That makes it a valuable treatment for wounds that won't heal (including diabetic or radiation injuries) and fighting infection, including gangrene. For those situations and several others, the science is settled enough that insurance will typically cover HBOT. It's less clear that HBOT can reverse brain injury, but early research has shown promising results among children with traumatic brain injury. Harch thought it could work for Carlson.

After 10 sessions, Carlson's mother said she was "near normal" and a later MRI revealed only a mild residual brain injury. She can now laugh, talk, use a walker, and climb up a jungle gym. "She's getting so much better all the time," her mother told USA Today. "In a couple of years, it's going to be like she never had an accident."

Harch and a colleague have published a case study about Carlson's recovery and are planning to present their findings at a conference in New Orleans next month. Harch notes it's only one case, but he said that a child's still-growing body presents a unique opportunity for treatment. "The startling regrowth of tissue in this case occurred because we were able to intervene early in a growing child, before long-term tissue degeneration," he said in a statement.

Harch suggests that, in the absence of HBOT therapy, even simply treating the patient with pure oxygen may have positive effects. "Such low-risk medical treatment," he said, "may have a profound effect on recovery of function in similar patients who are neurologically devastated by drowning." Of course, there's the remote possibility that Eden would have gotten better on her own, but the case certainly suggests more research is needed.

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